Two days after finals end, I plan to drive to the nearest movie theater and watch the new “Great Gatsby” movie. It stars Leo DiCaprio, who was and still remains my top middle school crush.
I know Gatsby well (Leo less so). I’ve read his story under the covers at sleepaway camp, through delirious exhaustion in 11th-grade English, just last week while lying on Old Campus. I used to think it was sort of strange that it’s considered a Great American Novel. It’s really a story of hazy, drunken parties, elegantly dressed New Yorkers and a petty romance. After all, Tom and Nick went to Yale. Fast forward 90 years, and his book could be a tale of freshmen stumbling from frat parties to Toad’s in search of their long-lost Daisy, that “50 Most” girl from calc section.
But even beyond the parties and the romance and the privilege, Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” is a very Yale sort of story.
When I think about Gatsby I picture a man, sepia-toned, standing on a dock gazing at Daisy’s green light and remembering a moment when he was 17 and very much in love. He is “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” His memories may seem petty, but to him they’re the most painful thing in the world. You might say he’s a little stuck. Maybe that’s the point.
Yalies understand nostalgia. There’s a culture of happiness here — of breezy days and chicken tenders days and the sort of days filled with three-hour meals. We wish that time would move slower. By Thanksgiving break we reminisce about Camp Yale, and by March we complain the year is ending too quickly. Sophomores start slumping and miss their easy freshman years. Seniors coin the term “SWUG” to describe their nostalgia for their “youth”; oh, to be 18 again, instead of an elderly 22.
Some afternoons, or days, or weeks we wonder how the time has gone by so quickly. The Harkness bells ring, and we wonder how it’s already 5 in the evening.
And so, we talk about going back to yesterday, or reliving last weekend. Spring Fling can’t come yet, not until we relive that one night in January, that one night with the music playing too loudly and the costumes a bit overdone. But we plan ahead obsessively. Some part of us knows we’re only 19, or 20, or 22.
“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” Fitzgerald wrote. “I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” Sometimes I watch for a perfect weather day or a chicken tenders day, but I miss it because I’m stuck in Sterling applying to summer internships. Yale happens sometimes while we’re busy making other plans.
As the end of the semester nears, my insecurities pile up in heaps on the floor of my suite. Unread readings, unfinished projects, abandoned trips to the gym. Like Gatsby’s green light, my hopes for each year are always just a bit too far away for me to reach. We’ve all got to-do lists on to-do lists here. I end up in conversations about the work I plan on doing and the sleep I plan on getting and end up accomplishing neither. And fortunately on Monday, we’ll all forget our end-of-the-semester insecurities after one too many beers. Spring Fling may be one step below the East Egg parties of the Roaring Twenties, but we’re getting there.
I guess there’s a reason Gatsby’s been reincarnated so many times — picked apart in literature classes, filmed and refilmed into major motion pictures. We’re all seeking Daisies and watching our own green lights combust.
Maybe I only have the luxury of saying this because I’m a freshman, but I feel like we’re all one step ahead of Gatsby because we’re young. Gatsby wasted years trying to slow down time and relive his youth — but our youth has barely begun. Not one of us is even the least bit washed up. After graduation, we’ll move to Paris or Nairobi, and we’ll cure diseases and go on safaris and buy funny hats. We can get nostalgic about our college years, but the fact is that they just aren’t the gladdest years of life. The culture of happiness we’ve created is transportable. Bring it as your carry-on. Ditch the green lights, and make 25, or 47, or 64 your gladdest year yet.
Emma Goldberg is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .